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Earlier in the year as the NHS began to respond to the emerging COVID-19 public health emergency, it became clear that how data is collected, held and shared had to be joined up so that decision-makers had access to the accurate real-time information they needed to better understand and anticipate demand on services.
NHS England and NHS Improvement, working with NHSX, therefore set out to establish a single secure location to gather and analyse COVID-19 data to provide a single version of the truth about the rapidly evolving situation.
Early on, we worked with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to implement Control of Patient Information (COPI) notices to allow us to safely and securely share that data. Strict processes and a Data Protection Impact Assessment were put in place to ensure that patient data remained in the NHS and could only be used in line with the usual principles and ambitions of improving patient care. We also published a Privacy Notice to explain what this means for patients.
Once the notices were in place, we needed to develop a solution that would provide national organisations responsible for coordinating the COVID-19 response with secure, reliable and timely data – whilst protecting the privacy of patients – to make informed, effective decisions. We established the NHS COVID-19 Data Store, which brings together multiple data sources from across the health and care system in England into a single, secure location.
Consolidating this information has allowed us to use that data to develop tools and dashboards within a single integrated data platform to give decision-makers more accurate visibility into the status of the response, providing a better understanding of how the virus is spreading, when and where the healthcare system will face strain, and which interventions can best mitigate this.
Using this information, decision-makers can:
- Understand how the virus is spreading and identify risks to particularly vulnerable populations.
- Proactively increase health and care resources in emerging hot spots.
- Ensure critical equipment is supplied to the facilities with the greatest need.
- Divert patients and service users to the facilities that are best able to care for them based on demand, resources, and staffing capacity.
Alongside the various advance planning tools for local NHS teams that we have been able to develop based on this, as part of our commitment to transparency and ensuring the public has access to reliable information, we have published a Public-Facing Dashboard. The dashboard gives an accurate, daily view of the situation across the country. Users can break national data down into regional and local views, allowing them to better understand risks and monitor the situation around them. Over the past few months, the dashboard has become an essential tool for many. It currently has over 300,000 unique users every day, and five million hits a week. A recent feedback survey found that users are utilising the dashboard to make decisions about whether they should visit a particular area, see friends or get their hair cut.
In a matter of months, we have achieved what would have taken years under normal circumstances. As such this is another example of what we have been describing as ‘beneficial changes’ – things that the health service has done during and because of the pandemic which have accelerated progress towards improving access, quality and efficiency across health services.
In addition to this, pseudonymised data from the NHS COVID-19 Data Store has supported research to answer key questions about COVID-19. For example, Professor Ben Goldacre and colleagues at the University of Oxford used this information to show that people of Asian and Black ethnic origin were found to be at a higher risk from COVID-19. Researchers, including the NHS National Clinical Director for Diabetes, Professor Jonathan Valabhji, found that people living with diabetes also face a significantly higher risk of dying from COVID-19.
These studies and others have helped the NHS and its partners save lives, resulting in outreach programmes and proactive work to engage with people at higher risk.
The above are just a handful of ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic has shown the benefits, value and importance of data in supporting frontline NHS teams and saving lives. Just like many other beneficial changes, we need to retain this progress and continue to improve the way that data is managed and used by the system while maintaining high standards of public trust and promoting transparency.
As part of this, we have signed and published a new contract with Palantir for the use of its Foundry platform until December 2022. We are already adapting its use to help with the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine – enabling us to get supplies of the vaccine where they are needed and to plan the workforce to deliver them.
In the months to come, as the vaccine programme hopefully allows us to return more of our focus onto non-Covid care and the priorities set out in the Long Term Plan, we will continue to work with teams on the ground to find new applications which allow them and us to go further, faster – and smarter too.